Reflection: why fairness?

I’ve spent most of this week writing about fairness. It’s a simple notion, but one that sits at the heart of social responsibility. Being fair is about consideration and transparency. It still means making tough decisions that people won’t like, but it means doing so with integrity and recognising the evolved social contract of the Social Age.

I came to fairness by thinking about inequality: the notion that we cannot tackle inequality by looking at behaviours alone. We have to consider the culture and environment that we exist within in any organisation. Looking at culture lead me to consider what frameworks we can provide to help organisations reform, to help individuals make strong culture part of their stance. A framework to be fair.

We see a lot of movement towards greater transparency and social responsibility: everything from the move to sustainability to the moves towards equality support this. Organisations recognise the need to change, but are not always able to effect that change.

That’s why i think it’s important to unpick it, that’s why i’ve been reflecting and writing in this space: to change, we have to be curious. Being curious makes us agile.

The SCAN Model for Fairness

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Framework for Fairness: A model for fair decision making in business

Some notions seem obvious: the need to be fair, the need to do right. And yet in our societies we are not equal. We fail to do the right thing on many levels, not because we are bad people, but because we exist in complex spaces with multiple viewpoints and multiple measures of success.

The SCAN Model for Fairness
This is my first attempt at a model to integrate fairness into decision making.

Some of these factors are cultural: our actions are shaped by our experience and notions of normal. Some are environmental: we operate under financial, resource and time pressures that drive us to pragmatism that may be at odds with what’s right. Sometimes it’s just ignorance: we don’t realise we are being unfair.

I’ve been writing increasingly about fairness and right, but wanted to start driving towards a more practical view of this: how can we help Social Leaders and others within an organisation to consider what’s fair, what’s right, everyday, in every decision?

Today, i’m presenting the SCAN Model: it’s a practical framework for decision making designed to put fairness at the heart of what we do. It’s designed to help Social Leaders be fair, to create socially responsible businesses.

The SCAN Model for fair decision making

The model considers four stages:

STOP‘ is where we bring our decision making back into the conscious space and consider fairness.

CONSIDER‘ uses four aspects of a framework for fairness to structure our thinking.

ACTION‘ is about taking decisive and effective action.

NARRATIVE‘ is about sharing our story behind the decisions and learning from it.

We will explore each of these stages in more detail later.

This space is laden with terminology: ethics, morality, equality, right. I want to focus on a practical space: what’s fair. I’m primarily interested in how we can operate successful, profitable, highly effective and engaged, socially responsible businesses. These may be global or local, working in any field or sector. Energy companies, pharmaceuticals, banks and armies may all be socially responsible in their work. They can all be fair. If they stop to think how. If they empower leaders to make fair choices: if they understand the impacts of fairness.

A socially responsible business may still make tough decisions, may still do things that some see as unfair, but they do so in a considered way, understanding the consequences of their actions. And they stop doing things that are just plain wrong.

Like selling people insurance they don’t need, when, it’s legal, but we know it’s not right. Like only making drugs available to people in rich countries, because it’s tough to give them away in poor ones. Like passing someone over for promotion because we think they will be taking maternity leave next year and we think we know what’s fair. Like not placing someone in a project team because they are homosexual and would need to work in Saudi, which we think would be tough for them. Like bad mouthing someone behind their back because that’s how everyone else behaves.

Fairness operates on many levels: some world changing, some as small as a conversation. It’s not about being nice: it’s about being authentic. If we are not fair in everything we do, we are not fair.

The environment: a web of influence

Let’s consider the environment we operate within.

Actions and Pressure

No action takes place in isolation: we are scrutinised and motivated within a web of influence. The organisations we work in exert pressures upon us: time, profit, resource, history, pragmatism, peer pressure, bullying, hierarchical inertia, ‘what we’ve always done‘, ignorance. Organisations are not bad, but they can fall out of touch with contemporary reality. The world is changing. Agile organisations learn to change with it.

Is your organisation agile enough? Does it need to learn to be more fair?

Organisational Pressure

Look at the Social Age: a job is no longer for life. Most people in their thirties have been made redundant, sometimes many times. The social contract between organisation and individual is fractured: no longer does the organisation provide structure and security, instead it provides a wage and limited opportunity. And the chance to engage later as a freelancer. Within this structure, who has your best interests at heart? Are all our demands fair? Is it fair to control people with restrictive policies on social media whilst expecting them to work from home in the evenings?

Often we asked for loyalty and determination from individuals to help grow a business, based on the old contract, which gave them a future within it. That was fair, after a fashion. Today, no such contract exists. So how do we make the demands fair?

Who is looking out for your long term development needs? Who is ensuring that there is a fair payoff for efforts put in now? Remember, payoff doesn’t mean money: it means a fair transaction of effort and reward.

For example, we can reward people with social reputation: instead of banning people from writing about their work on social media and blogs, we can recognise and encourage it. In the Social Age, the reputation and social authority they build in these spaces will help them get their next job more than the cv writing course we give them as part of their redundancy package.

I’m using the term ‘organisational pressure‘ to talk about those pressures exerted within the framework of the organisation: the insidious ‘this is what we’ve always done‘ conversations that prevent true change from occurring. It’s not impossible to be fair within this framework, but it requires thought.

Look at an organisation in change: this may involve redundancy, changed roles, new opportunities. Is it wrong to make people redundant, unfair? Not if it drives the business to profit and success, and if the business is socially responsible in how it gets there. Change is ok, but it needs to be transparent and clear. If people are under threat, we have to be open and clear, not retreat behind HR jargon and strategies aimed at controlling our risk. We need to be open to the risk that everyone carries.

Often organisations are concerned that, at times of change, the best talent will flee before it gets pushed: but if that’s our concern, there are better ways to deal with it than secrecy and policy. Be open, be transparent, share the opportunities that will exist as well as an ongoing dialogue about the changes that will occur. Being fair doesn’t mean we don’t make tough decisions: it means we make them transparently and narrate our thinking. And it means we do it with an understanding of the demands we can make of people under an evolved social contract.

Social Pressure

Social pressures are different: these are the pressures we feel from friends and wider society. Look at how the world views banks, big Pharma companies, GM crops, the search for shale gas (‘fracking‘), politicians, the list goes on. There is little trust, instead a general belief that greed has subverted fairness and right.

Our communities can exert pressure on us, and that pressure may conflict with organisational pressure. For example, we may have sympathy with the view that pay in banking is out of line with what society deems fair, but we may work in a bank and be unable to comment on this in social spaces. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible that in our job we make this happen, but in our social views we have uncertainty.

We cannot be blind to social pressure as it’s manifested in exerting pressure on us to do what’s fair. It doesn’t mean we won’t make the decision that the organisation wants, but we must recognise the social cost of so doing and the pressure that can build on an individual over time.

Internal Pressure

People often want to do what’s right, what’s fair, but because ‘fairness‘ is not black and white, we sometimes struggle to find a way. Or we sometimes just don’t even think about it. How often do we stop to ask if what we are doing is fair, but if we don’t, can we make fair decisions. It’s easy to just identify ourselves as ‘fair‘ people, but still many organisations create spaces and make decisions that are not fair or right. Within the SCAN framework for fairness, i’ve tried to work around this, encouraging individuals to stop and reflect. To make the unconscious conscious.

Internal pressures can exist when organisational values are not aligned with personal ones, or, more subtly, when organisational aspirations to be socially responsible are not aligned with personal desire to do right.

This notion of ‘social responsibility‘ is vital in the Social Age: it’s about alignment with wider truths. I believe that being socially responsible is the framework for organisations to remain relevant in the Social Age.

Judgement

Whatever action we take, we are judged. At work, the judgement is often codified into performance reviews and feedback loops, but we are also judged by our communities and peers. Again, challenges can exist when formal mechanisms of judgement are not aligned with actions that are deemed fair. Do we recognise the importance of fairness? Do we reward it?

SCAN: Stop

To learn is to change: the first part of the model is an instruction to stop. We need to consider the role of habit and triggers.

Our actions are not accidental, although they may not be considered. Things become habitual: habits are efficient ways of doing stuff without thinking about it to any great extent. We can almost view them as patterns of activity that create cognitive efficiency: trigger one off and away it runs.

The problem is that habitual responses are not agile ones: one problem presents one solution, whilst an agile approach would consider diagnostics first then choosing the most suitable action. We don’t use habitual responses for unusual situations, but we use them all the time for regular conversations and actions. When someone asks ‘how are you doing?‘, we don’t seriously stop to consider it. We get tripped into the response ‘oh, pretty good‘. When we get into the car, we fasten our seatbelt. It’s only if it jams, or we have an awkward bag on our lap that we trip back into a conscious state.

But these habitual responses go deeper than just driving and conversations about the weather. We are conditioned into ‘same as ever‘ responses by many things in the world of work. We are triggered. The trigger is the thing that kicks off the sequence, and it’s these triggers that we need to reprogram our decision to respond to.

As well as asking, ‘is this within process‘, ‘will this delivery on time‘, ‘is it on budget‘, we need to add the conversation ‘is it fair‘, and ‘who is this fair for‘?

The first step is to bring the conversation back into the conscious space: when do we need to consider ‘fairness‘ in our conversations? Well, if you ask me, in a socially responsible business, everyday. As i said earlier, fairness lies in every conversation, not just the big ones.

It’s only by this process of normalisation and conversation that it becomes part of our culture, that it becomes a new habit.

SCAN: Consider – The Framework for Fairness

The second step of the SCAN model is ‘consider‘ and it’s where we introduce the Framework for Fairness. So let’s have a go at defining a space, a place where we can consider how to be more fair.

Fairness

Once we’ve STOPPED and prevented our habitual responses, we can consider each of these four aspects.

How does the decision relate to our own INTEGRITY as the person we want to be?

How does the decision relate to our wider COMMUNITY?

What will be the IMPACT immediately of our decision?

What is the LEGACY of the decision?

The words in the clouds against each of these are factors that we may want to consider at each stage.

Integrity is about our core values: it’s the pride we feel from doing things right (and the way that pride is damaged if we are not true to what we know to be fair). Move too far away from what we know to be right and our relationship with the organisational culture fractures.

Balance is about mindfulness, about being aligned with our beliefs. Personally i could not work in certain places because it would move me out of balance, similarly, certain decisions trouble me. If we lose balance, we lose our platform to perform from.

There is a social impact if our integrity is damaged: it’s not just about how we are perceived at work, but more widely, how people view us. Are you trusted, are you fair? Things like trust, fairness, honestly have to be earned and proved: they are not bestowed with position or through money. Our communities and colleagues know this: organisational culture is shaped by this.

If we have high integrity, we are more confident and able to be more effective. The opposite is true too.

Community oversees our decisions: communities are based around shared values and shared purpose. If we become misaligned with that, we lose the coherence of the community, or our membership of it is jeopardised. In the Social Age, it’s communities that give us momentum and it’s strong communities that are magnetic to talent.

Communities exist within the organisation, but many straddle the boundaries or exist purely outside it. Take this community: we come from many countries and many disciplines, but we are united by uninhibited curiosity and the desire to co-create a story about ‘fairness‘. Our voice within the community is affected by our integrity and authenticity: if you discovered that i had been paid to write this piece (i haven’t!), it may impact on how you viewed it. Unless it was Amnesty International who paid, in which case it may enhance my credibility. Or the Government, which may reduce it.

Communities are highly engaged around topics which are relevant to them: being fair is likely to be universal. Being unfair is likely to damage our reputation and hence social authority, making us less effective at a time when our communities are everything.

When we look at ‘community‘ we need to think about how our actions will be interpreted by community and how that will affect our ability to perform.

The third aspect of fairness is ‘impact‘. What will be the impact of our decision once it’s taken. Will it impact on the coherence of our communities or relationships? Will our levels of trust remain intact? Do our actions make the world more equal? What is eroded? We will still have to take difficult decisions, but we can understand how they will affect our agility, our ability to effect change. And we have to understand that decisions which are unfair may spawn subversion, may fuel the fires that work against us. So being fair is in everyone’s interests.

Finally, there is a legacy: not just from one decision, but from decisions over time. When organisations have fractured cultures, when they have a mosaic of broken bonds, they leave us isolated, resistant to change, lacking momentum.

Cultures that are not fair lack diversity and hence lack social authority and power. Our strength comes from our ability to listen and engage widely.

Clearly there is more work to do around this, but my intention is to create structured pathways we can take through this framework to help in practical decision making, in real time, but within a framework that lets us consider how fair our decisions are.

SCAN: Action

The purpose of the model is to help us take action in a considered way: but it’s most certainly about taking action, even when that action is pragmatic and likely to be unfair to some people.

Our aim is to make fair decisions, but that doesn’t mean they are popular or, indeed, right for everyone. There may well be losers: the aim is to ensure that we are transparent about our thinking and we do so with integrity to our values. This is what true social responsibility is about: it’s not about making everyone happy, it’s about making decisions that are consciously within our framework for fairness, about consciously considering what’s right.

I’m considering two aspects here: clarity and transparency. Clarity is about not pulling punches. If we have effectively considered our own integrity, the community, the impact on all parties and the legacy, we should feel confident enough to be clear and decisive in our actions. And we should be transparent: when we know who the losers are, we should engage with honesty and transparency with them as directly as we do with those who have benefitted. It’s these conversations that help maintain trust and integrity, even through difficult decisions.

SCAN: Narrative

It’s a word you will hear a lot: storytelling, #WorkingOutLoud. It’s a trait of the Social Age, forming part of our reflective space, part of how we learn to do things better, to be agile, to be responsive.

So i’ve included it as the last stage of the SCAN Model, because if we don’t learn as we go, we can’t form new habits, habits that include fairness at their heart.

We need to think about what we did, reflect (within our own communities) and share our learning. What did we do that was right, what did we do that could inform others, what would we do differently next time and how have we included this in our ongoing, co-created story that we write over time?

Summary

The SCAN Model is intended to be a pragmatic way of looking at how we make decisions and whether those decisions are fair.

The SCAN Model - grey

It encourages us to STOP and explore our routines and habits, to discover if we are actively considering fairness in our decision making.

We CONSIDER our actions within the Framework for Fairness: how do they relate to our INTEGRITY, what does it do to our COMMUNITY, do we understand the IMPACT of our actions and the LEGACY over time?

Having considered, we take decisive ACTION, because Social Leaders are effective, they get things done.

Then we stop to NARRATE: reflect, to think on it, to share our evolved narrative.

It’s early days: i have spent some time exploring notions of ‘fairness‘, particularly in the context of equality, but i wanted to evolve this into something more practical, something that we can train. This is my first draft as i #WorkOutLoud, so do share your thoughts and feedback to help me evolve it one step further.

The Social Leadership Handbook is available now, exploring 9 core skills for the Social Leader

You can buy it here: SeaSalt Learning Bookshop

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A Framework for Fairness: Introduction

I’ve been working today to expand my ideas around ‘fairness’, what it means to factor being fair into leadership. I’ve been writing and drawing all day… it’s late… i’m not done yet… so in the spirit of #WorkingOutLoud, i’m sharing the introduction. More tomorrow!

What does it mean to be fair? What does it mean to do right? These are not idle questions: for an organisation to be socially responsible, for it to be magnetic to talent, for it to be agile, it needs to be well led, and leadership needs to be fair.

In the Social Age, hierarchical control is subverted by the power of communities and the social authority that they wield. Communities (both within and outside of the organisation) are able to harness the mechanisms of social media to generate momentum and effect change. Some organisations, like the NHS in the UK, are developing models of change based on an understanding of this. The ‘Healthcare Radicals‘ approach uses sanctioned subversive communities to empower individuals to shape, direct and share their efforts, within a framework of permissions and learning created by the organisation.

But the our world is riven by the potential of unfairness: the new social contract between organisation and employee means there is no job for life, there is little security, there may be no space for fairness anymore. We see organisations spiralling out of the space that society more widely wants them to inhabit: the banks with their fractured cultures, the privacy issues surrounding technology, the ethical dilemmas of pesticides and GM crops, the search for oil, the inequalities of rich and poor. Whichever way we look, we see failures of fairness.

And yet it’s such a simple concept: how have we ended up here?

I’ve become increasingly interested in what it means to be fair: not in an abstract and intellectual way, but what it means at the practical levels of management and running a business, at the day to day space we inhabit where we have to get stuff done. I’ve explored ‘fairness‘ in Social Leadership and the wider question of social responsibility, but in this article, for the first time, i want to start sharing some ideas of a framework for fairness. A practical way of analysing a situation to work out what’s fair, in the moment, and how we consider fairness over time.

Below is a matrix capturing the four aspects of ‘fairness’ that i’ll be exploring tomorrow

Fairness

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Ignorance or Bliss?

There are many things i do not know and will never learn.

Ignorance

Algebra remains a mystery. String theory. Piano. I have never learnt to ride a motorbike. I do not know how to program in C+ and i don’t even know if anyone still learns.

I do not know how to find the corpus callosum, despite a keen interest in neurology and i doubt i could relocate your dislocated shoulder.

I cannot swim more than a length and speak no Spanish. Or Russian. I can quote Einstein in Twitter sized bites, but will never read his works.

I read many books: i will never read them all.

I have been to many places, but will never get a full set.

The things we do not know vastly outweigh our knowledge: but what we do not know simply describes our wisdom. We are not defined by ignorance, but rather through that which we learn.

Our ability to remain curious in the face of overwhelming ignorance is what makes us special.

When we define ourselves by our ignorance, our limits are endless.

When we keep learning, it’s the possibilities that have no end.

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Building a culture of sharing

In an open culture, we share: we share our successes, our failures, and the respective paths we took to achieve both. The end point is incidental to the act: it’s the mindset of sharing that helps us to be more open, accountable, adaptable and agile. It’s the act of sharing that helps us to be wise.

A culture of sharing

Does your organisation have a culture of sharing, or is knowledge still used as a mechanism of control?

In the Social Age, reputation is forged in our communities, founded upon reputation built over time. it’s consistency of action and reaction that counts. Leaders who are humble, who share wisely and act consistently can develop stronger social authority and, hence, be more effective in the communities that help us to be agile.

But share what?

Our time, our knowledge, our capability, our wisdom, our communities, our expertise. It’s not just about curating content and sharing it (although that is a key skill for social leaders), but also about sharing our capacity. It’s about helping out.

A sharing culture is one where the default position is to be open, to be curious. It’s permissive of diversity and difference and welcomes permission to experiment.

Sharing is not about reciprocity: it’s about clarity of purpose and openness of intent. If we share wisely, we build bonds, we build reputation, we strengthen our tribe, and strong tribes are ‘sense making‘, they help us fathom our path through the Social Age.

A sharing culture is not the preserve of New Age cooperatives or collectives: it should be front and centre of any healthy and competitive organisation. Share with your friends, share with your competitors. If they are looking to you to learn, it just shows that you’re doing something right.

But sharing is not about volume: i use the word ‘wisely’ intentionally. It’s about adding context to what we share, about ensuring it’s relevant and timely. Be it our support or our resources, it’s about sharing the right things at the right time. Knowing when to offer and being open to being asked.

Reflect on the culture in your own organisation: does it welcome sharing, is it permissive of sharing? Or do you still use knowledge as a mechanism of control?

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Social and Fair: being unheard in the Social Age

When i wrote my first book, ‘Exploring the World of Social Learning‘, i started it by saying how we live in a grey space: between the formal worlds of work and the social lives we inhabit outside of it. Increasingly, it’s hard to differentiate. We work at home and play at work. Everything about the technology and infrastructure that we interact with drives us deeper into this grey space, and that provides us with a unique set of challenges if we want to be socially responsible businesses, if we want to be fair as leaders.

Privacy and Fairness

Just because we can see everything, does it mean we should look?

Who owns these spaces? Is the act of broadcast enough justification for the act of listening? Should we ever turn a blind eye?

Consider these scenarios:

Someone in your team is late for work on Monday, but you know from Facebook that they were out drinking last night. What’s fair? Is it fair to use that knowledge, from the social connection, in the formal world of work?

Someone in your team has a popular blog on a topic related to the area your business works in (say, pharmaceuticals) and they are having a great conversation with someone about navigating ethical challenges. The person they are having a conversation with is CEO of a rival business. Who owns that conversation? Are they helping a competitor to be successful, or are they advancing a valuable conversation for your whole industry? And is it even your business?

Someone in your organisation posts scans from their 12 week antenatal checkup on their personal Twitter account: you know there’s a long project coming up that involves lots of travel. Do you talk to them about it?

We could write a hundred of these, and for each, there would be a position that’s legal and a position that’s fair. They may not always be the same thing.

Technology is eroding the gap between formal, social and hidden spaces. Is love private anymore? Is religion a matter of faith or a matter of pragmatism.

Say you are connected to someone socially who lives in a country where homosexuality is illegal (there are around 80 countries in the world where that’s the case today). In work, they are exemplary in their performance and behaviour, but on Facebook they say something that you or i would find ethically reprehensible (although by the legal and ethical frameworks they may live within, perfectly acceptable). The technology let’s us see this, but it doesn’t help us navigate it.

Does the organisation have a moral right to examine what’s said in the Social Space?

I met someone this week who explained that she could never be on Facebook because of the consequences if a photo of her drunk got out.

But is that fair? Do we not all have a right to do whatever we like, within the legal and ethical frameworks of our culture, in our own free time? We are not indentured to organisations that can no longer give us a job for life and may not even earn our trust.

We can wield out the old argument about bringing the organisation into disrepute, but is that a two way street? Who is liable if a fund manager carries out insider dealing and brings the bank into the news. Are they brining your reputation into disrepute by association?

In the Social Age, we need a fair contract between organisation and individual: one does not own the other. Trust is earned and repaid. We are all human: there is no doubt a lot of work to be done to navigate the ethical challenges that may exist in global businesses, but we have a right to our privacy.

In Social Leadership, i write about ‘humility’ and fairness: doing what’s right. This is the line that socially responsible organisations need to tread.

Just because we can see, doesn’t mean we should look.

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The Boatman

The windows were steamed up this morning: single glazing lets the warm, humid air inside the cottage connect with glass cooled by the fresh sea breeze outside. At this touchpoint, this connection, the condensation forms. Fine drops of water coalescing in places to form larger pools that, unsupported by the glass, run down in rivulets, racing down the pane to the sill where they puddle. As they run, they clear thin vertical windows through which i can see the dawn light outside.

IMG_4283.JPG

The cottage is on the quayside, facing out into the channel. Barely half a mile away the jetty on the mainland: the channel in between treacherous, filled with the racing tides of the harbour mouth.

I’ve sailed here before: it’s not a maelstrom, that word that conjures up whirlpools, whipping winds and shipwreck, but it’s most certainly muddled water. The tides entering the harbour slip over the waters still flowing out, all of it swirled around by the currents running around the island and compounded by the stone built quay itself, interrupting the waves as they run along the foreshore.

As you ride it, the water changes consistency: first fluid, smooth, then racing surf, then finally a kind of treacly mess that drags on the hull, dulling movement and muddling response.

This morning, as the sun nudges above the horizon, the skies are clear, the morning crisp, still. There’s been heavy rain, but now the only trace remaining is the rainbow arcing overhead and setting land behind the cottage. No pot of gold, but rather an idyllic island, isolated yet connected by tenuous routes over the water.

The quay itself is massive: not massive as in huge, but massively built. Hefty stone dressed in local quarries and set in place a hundred years ago. No pebbles on the beach here: this is constructed to withstand storm and tide, weather and impact.

The quayside is a transit space: nothing lives here, nothing is permanent. It’s the transition between island and mainland. Two trolleys stand idly by, the sort they use in the back of lorries to carry foodstuffs and wheel into supermarkets. There are several wooden benches waiting for people to fill them and there’s a tiny tractor, so small it reminds me of those ride on lawnmowers you see in suburban mansions. Bright red, it stands, forlorn, but ready for duty, a trailer lying next to it, bereft of cargo. It’s a symbol of expectation: it has no purpose except to pull, to assist in the transition.

The centre of the quay is empty, but yesterday i saw it variously filled with milling crowds of tourists, a disassembled marquee and the remnants of a band. It’s a space that assumes multiple purposes, a democratised zone ready to be appropriated to the needs of the islanders as time demands.

The edges though, those are different. Purposeful, specialised, functional and off limits. It’s an unwritten rule, but the ropes, hitching posts, chains and pulleys are the purview of the sailors, the dockhands and harbour master. Even in this edgeland, there are edges. When boats come in, there is a ritual: casting the rope, a quick hitch to kill the momentum, then swing the rear end in. Once tethered front and back, the plank is laid across the gap and chains removed to allow the flow to begin. Cargo, people, animals, children. Everything passes through this space.

The posts the boats moor up to are heavy iron affairs, familiar from docks the world over: rusty red yet polished smooth by rope. Bolted to the stone as if anchored to the centre of the earth itself. Often when you see abandoned boatyards, the building reduced to ruin, the dry docks flooded and half collapsed, cranes rusted and leaning, still you see these bollards, standing firm amidst the decay. Bastions of stability, bereft of purpose but stoical and endless.

My boat arrives: the early morning ferry is tiny. It’s white bow nuzzles the quay before bumping alongside. Capacity must only be twelve or so, in two rows of bench seats, half under cover, along each side. The wheelhouse up front is low and open at the back: perched on top a small silver horn and lifebuoy, it’s red circle bright against the grubby white.

The boat bobs crazily and to board we descent the stone steps, crossing the chain link fence and into the domain of the boatman.

Today, our companions are a small girl in her vibrant red school uniform and the postman, setting off for work on the mainland i assume, his red bag hanging by his side.

Red seems to be a theme: the starboard light is red, the lifebuoys are red, the buoys bobbing in the water are red, the boatman’s jacket is red, the postman’s bag is red, the girls uniform is red and the sun coming over the horizon is tinged with red as it rises. So many things demanding my attention: red is the colour of action and threat, purpose and alert.

The boatman is in his element: his element water.

He’s quiet but not surly. Purposeful, but with an eased gait that speaks of experience and composure. He’s steady on his feet whilst i grip the rails and posts with every step, all too aware of the gap between boat and quay and the black water sucking and beckoning below.

I perch on one bench, opposite the schoolgirl, clutching her satchel and staring at me: i guess they don’t get many strangers on this early ferry. With only thirty residents on the island, a stranger is not hard to spot.

Behind me, the cottage looks peaceful as the sun breaks free from the horizon: signs of life are starting to stir on the waterfront. Doors creaking open, a couple of figures scurrying between home and office, gates opening.

The boatman casts off with an easy flick of the wrist, the rope slipping off the bollard and flying high into the air, deftly caught and coiled in one smooth manoeuvre. The idling of the engine is replaced by a roar and churning of the water by the stern, white spray flicked into the air and a sudden sense of motion and intent.

On an island, everything is about perspective: from the shore, the mainland looks distant, huge. From the quayside, the boat looks small. From the boat, the island looks tiny as it slowly starts to recede.

The distance is one thing, the sense of distance another.

I feel the tenuous nature of my residency shift: after four days, the island feels like home, but that link starts to stretch. As we move further into the water, the call of the mainland increases. My perspective shifts: the island ceases to be my world, partitioned by water, enclosed, insular, remote. Instead, it starts to shift into memory: images flicking through my mind as i write, here on the train. My reality is a grey table and red seats (more red, it’s a day of redness), but the images in my minds eye are from the island. The sense of stillness and timelessness. The quiet walking amongst the trees. The sense of energy on the quayside.

Midway across the channel, the islands ceases to dominate my view: suddenly both sides fit within my peripheral vision, i can see it as a whole, not in it’s parts. Suddenly i am outside looking in. A visitor on my way home, no longer resident.

But with this realisation, comes the sense of homecoming, the point i rejoin my life where i left it off before: reunited but enriched. The memories we form only have purpose when we return: travelling is not just about the journey, it’s about the homecoming too. Only when i am home can i add these memories to my own journey, comparing my time on this island with so many i’ve visited before, adding my own perspective and writing my own narrative.

The boatman steers us onwards, now towards the jetty, towards home. I turn my back to the island, my nose to home, the land getting closer now, looming up until, with a jerk and roar we make contact with the pier.

I step ashore, the ceaseless motion of the deck replaced by that solidity of land that, even after such a short trip, is noticeable. At the top of the steps, climbed in a blur, i look back, seeing the island glimpsed over the water, alive with light as the sun climbs higher. From here it looks low, barely reaching out of the water.

Below me, the Boatman casts off: his is the role of gatekeeper. He belongs to neither realm. Forever leaving or joining, his element is the water itself and the solidity of his boat. King of his domain, his ascendancy unchallenged by cargo or passengers, a solitary figure as the boat starts to recede. Perspective again challenges me: the boat that once filled my view now tiny on the water, it’s movement crazily dancing with light as currents buffet it and the sun climbs ever higher until it’s hard for me to pick it out as my eyes find the sharpness too much to bear.

The boatman recedes as i move onwards. Continuing my journey.

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